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Application Choices: Early Action, Early Decision, Regular, Rolling

To apply or not to apply is that the question?

No, you are going to apply, the real question is how to apply.

Keep Calm and Apply to College

There are three basic types of admissions to colleges and universities. They are regular, early decision, and early action. There are a couple of flavors associated with each one to make life interesting.

Approximately 450 out of the 3,000 colleges offer early admissions enrollment. In general, early admissions are for students who have carefully studied all available options; who have researched the academic, social, and geographic desirability of colleges; have ideally visited the colleges; whose grades and test scores are at or above the median of accepted students; AND based on all of this have one particular college that they are sure they would love to attend, and at which they will thrive.

Types of Early Admissions:

Early Decision (“ED”): A binding contract between the school and the applicant which means, if the college accepts an early decision application, the student must agree to attend. When sending out the acceptance, the school sends its financial or merit aid offering. Only if the financial aid offer is completely inadequate can a student “break the contract” and go somewhere else. Not receiving merit aid or enough merit aid is not a reason to break the contract. Note: colleges do not like it when students “break contracts.” News of a broken contract travels fast and will most likely affect other applications.

Students will hear in December if they have been accepted, declined, or deferred. Deferred means they put you in the regular admissions pool. Students can also apply for other non-restrictive early action and regular applications. Upon being accepted by the college, you must withdraw all other applications.

Restricted Early Decision: all of the above, PLUS, you promise not to apply early to any other school. Students can apply for regular decision colleges. Upon being accepted by the college, you must withdraw all other applications.

Early Decision I and Early Decision II: same, just different deadlines.

ED Deadlines: Each school has its own deadlines. Typically, Early Decision is November 1st. Some are as early as October. Students will hear the decision in December. Make sure you research the schools.

Early Action (“EA”): A non-binding application indicating that the student really, really wants to go to this school. The college will respond as accepted, declined, or deferred. Students usually hear by January or February. College will send acceptance along with financial or merit aid offer. Students have until May 1st to decide.

Early Action I and Early Action II: same, just different deadlines.

Restrictive Early Action aka Single Choice Restricted: Like restricted ED, the student promises not to apply to any other college for early admission.

EA Deadline: Each school has its own deadlines. Typically, EA is in November. Application decisions are sent in December.

Other Types of Admissions

Regular admissions are just that, “regular.” They follow the normal deadline and the student usually has until May 1 to accept or decline the offer. Most schools will inform students around March 15th.

  • California State University (CSU) application period: Oct 1 through Nov. 30. No early admissions.

  • University of California (UC) application period: Nov. 1 through Nov. 30. No early admissions.

  • Private (includes liberal arts schools) and non-California state schools: applications accepted between November and March, with most of them having a deadline of January or February.

  • Acceptance decisions from the student are due on or before May 1st, usually that is also when a monetary deposit is also due.

  • Schools use either EA or ED, they do not offer both

Rolling Admissions: some schools have a rolling or open admissions process with deadlines for each semester. These schools tend to be much less selective and welcome most students if they meet the minimum criteria.

Does the early bird get the worm? Depends on the bird and the worm!


Early Decision should be limited to students who do not have significant financial need. Because of the early application and acceptance timeline, and the requirement to withdraw all other applications; the student cannot compare financial or merit aid offered by other schools.

Statistically speaking, the acceptance rate under early admissions is a little higher than for regular admissions. HOWEVER, there is a different pool of applicants. Students applying early tend to be highly qualified with their grades, course-work, test scores, and other factors. It is a smaller pool, but they are all Olympic swimmers! Some schools are admitting over half of freshmen through early admissions. If you are a very likely prospect and there is one school that stands apart in your mind from the others, then early admission could be for you. Watch the deadlines!

Hearing early about admissions can relieve a lot of stress!! Or not. Getting the decision from your favorite school before the end of the year means you can relax and enjoy senior year…assuming you keep up your work habits and pass all of your classes. If you goof off and your grades drop, the acceptance can be rescinded! Also assuming you don’t suffer from buyer’s remorse aka college remorse. What if another excellent university or a program more closely suited to your interests pop up on your radar. Will you be happy to stick with the decision you have already made?


ED puts a lot of pressure on students to make a decision before they have had time to explore all of the other options.

ED takes away the ability to compare financial and merit aid awards from other schools.

ED and EA decisions usually do not arrive before mid-December. If the student is turned down or deferred, that leaves only two very short weeks during the height of the winter holidays to complete applications for other schools whose deadlines are in January. Solution, if students apply for ED or EA, also complete other applications! Note, this is after the UC and CSU application deadlines.

Students must take the SAT and/or the ACT by the October date in order to have the scores back in time for the November application deadline.

Early admissions are NOT recommended for students who need their first senior semester grades to bolster their GPA. Some schools ask students to report their first senior semester grades as part of the application process. Applying early does not allow them to take advantage of their senior grades.

What’s It All About and Why Do They Do It?

It depends on how cynical you want to be. It is not that the schools want to give their most eager applicants a relaxing winter vacation. Early admissions and early commitments to enroll make a school look good. Rankings, as unscientific and biased as they might be, are partly based on yield. Yield means how many students accept the admissions offer and enroll. The higher the yield, the more wonderful the school looks.

Students eager enough to overlook comparing financial or merit aid awards, are more likely to enroll therefore increasing a school’s yield. Filling up half or more of the freshman class before December allows college administrators to relax and with the knowledge that they’ve got a big group of students already signed up with their deposits ready to go.

Arguably the early policy benefits wealthy people and is unfair to middle class and lower income families. These families need to take the monetary aid into account when choosing a college acceptance. Some schools, aware of this unintended consequence are dropping ED in favor of EA, and others are dropping them altogether because they truly want to be accessible to all students regardless of ability to pay.

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